Before it collapsed on the night of August 7th, 2001, the Huangtian No.2 Electroplating Plant was a ramshackle factory of 17 buildings built on a riverbank in the east coast city of Wenzhou, Fujian province. Twelve workers lost their lives in the accident and one is still missing, presumed dead.
Since its collapse, damning reports about the factory have spread through the media, which local officials say is owned by a consortium of more than 30 people. It is to be hoped that the official investigation into the accident will address the veracity of these reports as they are directly related to health and safety problems plaguing production all over China. They include:
Survivors have said that the top floors of the three-storey buildings were used as sleeping quarters for migrant workers. This is an illegal practice known as three-in-one where production, storage and employee accommodation is all under the same roof. Also a nearby hut with three walls and no door is rumoured to have been used to sleep six to eight workers. A spokeperson for the Huangtian township government said that some of the buildings that collapsed had been recently classed as dangerous after splits and cracks were found in walls and pillars.
Illegal Working Hours:
A Wenzhou internet news service said that on the night of the accident, a new contractor had ordered the mostly women workers to start work fifteen minutes earlier than usual. He said that this was necessary to make up for lost production as newly hired small girls dozed off at night. Although suspicions of illegal working hours at the Huangtian factory are so far anecdotal, the problem is very common in Wenzhou where 98% of industrial output is based in the private sector. Li Jian is a manager at the Kangnai shoe factory that has 3,000 employees. He said that his workers have to work until 11pm sometimes when we are busy, but when there is no work we send them home for three or four weeks, sometimes even with some pay. It would appear that Wenzhous employers have attained the kind of flexible labour force that International Monetary Fund economists drool about.
No, that is impossible, says Ms. Hu, spokeperson for the towns government. Yet locals have sited telltale signs that point to the use of child labour. Hong Kong media reported witnesses to the accident as saying [W]orkers didnt have to show identity cards when they applied for the job and the owners didnt check if the girls were underage. Most of the girls were between 18 and 19. But there were also girls aged between 13 to 16 working in the factory.
Survivors of the tragedy have also cited other problems besides those related to health and safety. A 34-year old worker surnamed Wang reported that management often retained wages - between Rmb 500 and 1,000 per month - so that employees didnt overspend. Many are still waiting to collect up to seven months wages and fear that the arrest of four of the owners and disappearance of others could jeopardise the money they are owed.
(HK: SCMP 11/08/01, 10/08/01)